Eight hundred years ago this fall, in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, Francis of Assisi traveled to the besieged town of Damietta at the mouth of the Nile. Crossing the battle lines, the saint spent three days in conversation with Sultan Malik Al-Kamil.
The two men could not have been more different. The divide between them stretched wide. Christian and Muslim. Rich and poor.
Christian leaders expected Francis to be martyred, and that this would revive the spirit of the Crusaders. But Francis and Al-Kamil found common ground, setting an example eight centuries ago that we might emulate today.
Each man was a person of faith. Each was eager for peace. The sultan had offered generous treaties only to have them rejected. Francis greeted everyone he met – Pope or pauper – with the words “Peace and Goodness to You.”
According to Thomas of Celano – Francis’ friend and first biographer – we know that Francis “was received very graciously by the Sultan.” The details of his days in the enemy camp are slim but there’s much that we can infer.
We know that Al-Kamil loved a good argument and that he was drawn to the Sufi tradition within Islam. Indeed, Francis would have resembled a Sufi. They, like he, wore rough clothing and avoided personal possessions.
I imagine the two men arguing the attributes of Jesus, as understood by Sufi Muslims and Franciscan Christians, only to find themselves in agreement, as both faiths emphasize Jesus’s rejection of material goods.
More important is what we know about the results of their meeting.
First, the very fact that Francis returned unharmed is telling. Based on the practices of the time, he would have been beheaded if he’d spoken a word against Islam or the Prophet Mohammed. So, Francis must have offered up his own beliefs without denigrating those of the Sultan and his court.
This had a direct impact on the Franciscan order. Upon his return to Italy, Francis revises the order’s “Rule” and specifies that brothers who “live spiritually among the Saracens … not engage in arguments or disputes but be subject to every human creature for God’s sake.”
Second, while in the Sultan’s camp, Francis would have heard the call to prayer five times each day. Back in Italy, he tries to introduce a similar practice for Christians, saying that they should pause throughout the day to reflect and worship.
Al-Kamil even sends Francis home with an ivory horn meant for this purpose. It’s said that Francis used it to gather a crowd before he preached, like the muezzin’s call from a minaret.
As for Al-Kamil, whether it’s the influence of Francis or his own Muslim faith, the sultan proves himself a compassionate ruler. When the Christians finally admit defeat, victims of hunger and bloodshed and death, an eyewitness among them writes: “The Sultan was moved by such compassion that for many days he freely revived and refreshed our whole multitude.” This Christian author goes on to say of the Muslim ruler: “Who could doubt that such kindness and mercy proceeded from God?”
Though they were together so briefly, these two men – saint and sultan – are forever joined. Both are models for peace, though both fail in the end.
We can only imagine what Francis felt when he heard that the Pope had proclaimed yet another Crusade. We can only imagine how the Sultan felt as he prepared – once again – to defend his people.
There’s another Muslim tradition that Francis brought home to Europe. In Islam, there are 99 names for God. It takes all of them together to encompass the many facets of that incomprehensible Divine Mystery. They include:
The Source of Peace
The Righteous Teacher
As the call to arms is heard across Europe, Francis has a deeply personal, spirit-altering experience that results in the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – appearing on his body. When he emerges from that experience, he writes his own, joyful version of the Islamic text:
You are love, charity; You are wisdom, You are humility,
You are patience. You are beauty. You are meekness,
You are security, You are rest …
All of this happened eight centuries ago, in a time and place different from our own, and yet familiar. We live in a nation entrenched in Islamaphobia. We live in a time when our thinking is binary and disagreements are experienced as disrespect or insult.
But we might find mentors and role models in a poor monk who preaches peace, and a military commander who treasures the wisdom of Sufi poets – in leaders who allow themselves to be transformed by each other.